Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds shows that he hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to creating blockbuster spectacle. While he has spent much of the 2000’s creating dramatic films (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can and Munich) he hadn’t made a film which spoke epic in both spectacle and themes. He had made two unique films with sci-fi themes with A.I. and Minority Report, but still they lacked the size and oomph of Spielberg’s past blockbusters. It took him remaking for the current generation a classic sci-fi story to bring us back the Spielberg many grew up with. His take on H.G. Wells tale of aliens invading Earth was both grandiose in it’s set-up, but he was also able to deftly weave a very personal story within the larger scheme of the narrative.
Working from David Koepp and Josh Friedman’s adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, Spielberg goes back to his roots as a maker of thrillers that first showed his talents as a director. War of the Worlds has its spectacular CG moments when the alien Tri-Pods first rise up and out of the ground to the look of awe and fear from people witnessing the event. Spielberg begins the film’s unrelentless tension from these scenes and never lets go. Once the Tri-Pods start unleashing their death-rays on the populace and whatever else is in their way the film starts moving at breakneck speed. It’s these same apocalyptic scenes of the alien’s extermination of humans that has prompted critics (both positive and negative) to bring up Spielberg’s use of 9/11 imagery. From the clouds of ash and floating pieces of clothes to the sight of people running in panic as destruction rains upon them from out of nowhere.
Some critics have labeled Spielberg’s film as exploiting the horror of 9/11 and its aftermath, yet when a film like 28 Days Later use the same imagery and themes these same critics applaud the director of this film as daring. Its an unfair criticism of Spielberg and just shows how some people just seem to use the events of 9/11 as a crutch. Yet, it is this same use of people vaporised into nothing but ash and clothng that adds to the tension and horror. It is easy to use blood and gore to bring up a feel of horror, but Spielberg one up’s this and forgo grand guignol scenes. His technique actually brings an inhuman and alien quality to the death and destruction on the screen. From the moment the aliens arrive Spielberg lets us know that this is a war that has not been seen on Earth.
Spielberg and his writers have stuck pretty close to what Wells’ wrote in the original novel, but have decided to look at the story through the eyes of a father and his son and daughter. This gives the film a more personal, disjointed and chaotic feel. There’s no scenes of the government powerbrokers debating and deciding how best to combat the aliens and their machines. No scenes of scientists trying to figure out how best to fight and get through the aliens’ defenses. In fact, War of the Worlds is the anti-Independence Day. What we get instead is a story of a man and his children trying to just survive the apocalypse occuring around them as best as they can. This choice by Spielberg and his writers to go this route is best shown in a scene where Tom Cruise’s character with his kids run into a convoy of military vehicles heading towards the frontline. We see Humvees, M1A2 Main Battle Tanks and other assorted military hardware and hundreds of soldiers. We can hear the sound of the battle just over the ridge of a hill, but just like Cruise’s character we do not actually see the battle happening. We hear snippets of commands and reports from the soldiers around Cruise. Spielberg could’ve easily panned the camera up over the ridge to see how the battle was progressing, but he stays his hand focuses instead on the dad and his family. It’s easier to go the route that Bay or Emmerich would take and show the sturm und drang, but that wasn’t the story Spielberg was trying to tell.
ILM’s work in creating the alien Tri-Pods and the subsequent terraforming the aliens begin were some very good work from an FX company with a history of impressive work. The Tri-Pods kept the original H.G. Wells description from the novels but gave them a modern take. While the George Pal version of the alien ships remain classic sci-fi icons these new Tri-Pods in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds definitely conveyed alien menace and destruction the moment they began to come out of the ground. It was a joy as a sci-fi fan to actually see that Spielberg and the writers decided to show just how menacing the alien invaders were in the way they began to terraform the planet to suit their needs. It definitely put a new definition to the term “the blood is life”.
The acting is what you expect from a Spielberg/Cruise collaboration. Cruise is actually very believable as a loser father who seem to look at his kids as more of a hindrance and a scheduled paternal duty than something he actually enjoys and looks forward to. Some of the best scenes Cruise has in the film are quiet ones between him and his daughter (played by Dakota Fanning) where he realizes that he really doesn’t know his daughter that well and can’t even remotely figure out how to calm her down and make her feel safe. When his daughter asks him to sing her a lullaby, the look of incomprehension at not knowing any showing on Cruise’s face is just brilliant. The one misfire in terms of characters in the film is Tim Robbins. The sequence in the film where they meet up with his paranoid and slowly going nuts character is actually very good in terms of ratcheting up the tension, but Robbins’ performance was more funny than anything else. Spielberg had created such a doom and gloom atmosphere that Robbins’ character’s appearance ruins it abit.
One other thing which kept me from calling this film an outright great film are the kids of Cruise’s character. While the performances by Dakota Fanning as the daughter and Justin Chatwin as the son were quite good the way they were written left them annoying and baffling. Either the daughter was a shrieking and emotional mess or the son was written as a rebellious teen who wanted to get into the fight despite knowing he was his sister’s lone protector to begin the film. It made Cruise’s character seem less of an unattentive father and boor, but more of a parent who tried his best with children who defied and talkbacked at every turn. If the writers just made the kids even remotely sympathetic it definitely would’ve rounded out their characters as real people.
Overall, I think Spielberg’s War of the Worlds succeeds in what it set out to do despite some flaws with some of the characters. It entertains and it also shows that when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking he is still the master and everyone else just pretenders to his throne. As for the ending that some think as being short, abrupt and just a tad deus ex machina in execution, well I suggest they read or reread the book again. The ending fit the film perfectly. If the film was an all-out blast to the senses then a different one may be a better fit, but for the type of story Spielberg decided to film the ending made sense in its execution.